January 31, 2013

How planets form: Astronomers weigh a protoplanetary disk with unprecedented accuracy

In a study that gives astronomers new insights into how planets form, research led by the University of Michigan has enabled a dramatically more precise measurement of the amount of dust and gas in the planet-forming disk around a young star.

The findings speak, in a way, to a fundamental question: "Why are we here?"

"If you want to understand the origin of planets—that is, terrestrial worlds like Earth with abundant water and life and gas-rich worlds such as Jupiter—you have to understand how planets are born and what outcomes are possible under any circumstances," said Edwin Bergin, U-M professor of astronomy and lead author of a paper on the research published in the current issue of Nature. "And the mass of the protoplanetary disk is a fundamental quantity you have to have in order to understand planetary birth."